Matt Johnson, singer, songwriter
So many people have told me that the line “This is the day your life will surely change” has soundtracked a particular turning point in their life, which is what I was hoping for when I wrote it. This Is the Day is autobiographical, but I wanted to write something simultaneously personal and universal.
I was 21 and going through various life changes. I was in a new relationship, with Fiona, my first proper girlfriend. I’d come off the dole, signed to CBS and had been recording in New York, which all felt very exciting. My ex-manager and I ended up smashing up hotel rooms and misbehaving, all the stuff you feel you’re supposed to do when you’re 21 and signed to a record company and abroad. Drugs were involved, of course. The record company had loved Uncertain Smile so I was under a lot of pressure to come up with another single.
I wrote This Is the Day on an Omnichord at Fiona’s council flat. I remember crying as I was writing it. I was very young, but writing from an older point of view, thinking about “reading some old letters”, “memories that hold your life together, like glue” and family members. It’s looking back and forward – melancholy but with a hope that things are going to change for the better.
The opening line “Well you didn’t wake up this morning ’cause you didn’t go to bed / You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red” describes how I was living. Other images came from different parts of my life. I remembered being in a classroom, bored at school, and looking at a “plane flying across a clear blue sky”. The aircraft was a symbol of hope, aspiration, travel and the future and what I wanted to do with my life.
During writing and recording, it felt like a very strong song. Co-producer Paul Hardiman was a brilliant collaborator and the whole Soul Mining album used interesting instrumentation – we had marimbas and cellos alongside guitars and synthesisers.
The song means more to me now, in a way. I’ve lost my two brothers, my mum and on the last tour, my dad died just days before we played London. Singing it feels very emotional.
When it first came out in 1983 it went in the chart at No 71 or something but it’s become my most successful song. I get continual requests for its use in films, television dramas, documentaries, all sorts. If you could concertina all the plays it’s had over the years into a couple of weeks it would probably be a No 1.
I was working as a session musician and used to go to the Garden studios in London (owned by John Foxx from Ultravox) to play keyboards, programme drum machines and such. Matt was recording there. Playing accordion was quite unusual then, so I was asked to do a session.
In the studio there was just me, Matt and Paul, the producer. Nowadays you’re sent all the music beforehand, but back then you’d just go to the studio, they’d play the song for you and then you would just play along. If you needed another run through you’d do a second take, or maybe have a go at a solo. For This Is the Day the main hook had already been mapped out on a fiddle, but otherwise it was just a case of hit record and let’s go. I think they had only decided they wanted an accordion at the very last minute.
At the time, it was just another of the many sessions I was cramming in, having not earned any money playing for years. We did the video on a pier somewhere – Brighton, I think – and it was February and freezing. Not accordion-playing weather. It was obvious why the song was a single, but you never know that something is going to become successful or that one day you’ll hear it all over the world. In the US someone did a soundalike version to avoid paying royalties. I heard it in a supermarket and thought “Oh, that’s me”, then listened more closely and thought, “Oh no it isn’t!”